March 8, 2023

World-leading climate expert answers critical questions on responsible tourism and how to master it

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, paints a picture of a more sustainable future at ITB Berlin 2023

The renowned professor is gracing the stage at the world’s biggest travel trade show this morning, addressing a critical question for tourism: “Can we preserve the world while enjoying it?”

Ahead of his inspiring keynote speech, we spoke to Prof Schellnhuber about his latest research on responsible tourism including key trends, challenges and opportunities.

What information should responsible tourism companies be monitoring and why?
On the one hand, we have to look at the sheer data in terms of what’s happening. For example, how are emissions growing? The World Tourism Organization asked for a 50% reduction of emissions from the tourism industry by 2030. We need to monitor the real emissions coming from all its sectors combined. It is about keeping an eye on your own data when it comes to emissions and not shying away from precisely calculating the negative impacts of your services as well as the positives.

Based on your research, what are the main identifiable trends in responsible tourism?
I think we need a very clear cut definition of what responsible tourism is: You must not harm or destroy the site you are visiting and you must not impair the community which is providing access. Very few people consider climate change at present. But in tourism, you are directly destroying what you offer to your clients if you operate in an unsustainable way. Beach tourism for example is an essential part of the travel industry but we are now on a course of destroying the world’s beaches.

in tourism, you are directly destroying what you offer to your clients if you operate in an unsustainable way

It is also about finding a balance between the short term and long term approach to the travel industry. Then, we have pioneers and influencers discovering untouched communities and ecosystems. Through social media, these places become known to millions of people… but by praising a place, you can destroy it within just a few years. So you have to make sure you have an agenda, a timetable for how a place can become part of tourism while being preserved. And how to create benefits.

What challenges does responsible tourism raise for travel companies?
I see three dimensions to the challenges: Site, community and environment. You have to look at the impacts of tourism on all these scales.

There is also a major dilemma for tourism and the way we consume the things we want to preserve. If you overrun a certain site or ecosystem, then you destroy what you want people to visit. So we have to strike the right balance between excess and protection.

The solution can be compared to that of forestry for example – we extract timber from the forest as it grows back. Perhaps you should only visit a place as much as it is able to recreate its ecosystems and community integrity. Once you drive out an entire community, it becomes Disneyland and fails to attract the people of today, who have higher standards and expectations.

This year’s slogan is Mastering Transformation. What tools can travel companies use to achieve transformation?
There are interesting opportunities out there. My pet proposition at the moment is ‘if you build a hotel from timber, you have a positive impact on the climate.’ We can see this in Austria and Germany, and this is how you can also offset the fossil fuels you use for energy and power production.

If you build a big hotel from steel and concrete, your environmental debt is so big that you cannot offset it for 100 years. However, wood is created by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere so it can compensate for a lot of your negative impact on the climate.

I think ITB could become the pioneering event for the transformation to sustainable tourism.

What does a more responsible future for the travel and tourism industry look like?
There are many ways to make tourism more responsible. Protect and preserve the destination you are visiting, think of the communities you are interfering with, and think of the global environment.

What role does ITB Berlin have to play in promoting responsible tourism?
I think ITB could become the pioneering event for the transformation to sustainable tourism. I have been here several times and in the beginning, I felt that what I had to say was more or less a marginal part of the event. But I hoped it would become centre stage because whether tourism survives as a vital and thriving business will absolutely depend on whether it can transform.

How can being more responsible add value to companies’ tourism offer?

One way is through credibility and your end image. We have seen this with agriculture and the food industry already. In the 1970s and 1980s, people simply looked for the cheapest products but this is changing. It takes a while but I think if you sell tourism services and explicitly explain how the environment is benefiting, this will be really appreciated. The tourism industry could also contribute to raising awareness, offering excursions and explanations with responsible travel in mind.

If you make a credible offer and you explain that you are on a sustainable trajectory, it will be honoured. I think the trend will change, starting with the smaller sector of the upper middle class and lower class of rich people. You just need to be honest. Green washing is the worst thing you can do. It works for a few years maybe but then it will backfire. This is also what happened in the food industry. Your first law of tourism should be ‘don’t fool your clients.’

Think of Elon Musk and electromobility. He almost went bankrupt in the beginning and now this concept is turning the whole automobile industry upside down. Something similar will happen here.

Tourism: Can we preserve the world while enjoying it?
Thursday 9 March 2023
10.30am – 11.00am
Location: Hall 7.1a Orange Stage

World-leading climate expert answers critical questions on responsible tourism and how to master it
Singapore – © Coleen Rivas – Unsplash